Homeless in Los Angeles




Banner image: Council District 8 Homeless Navigation Center project by John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects, with public art mural by Moncho 1929. 

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IN A ZOOM CONFERENCE three weeks ago, sponsored by Harvard’s Graduate School of Design Alumni Council, Leilani Farha, a Toronto-based housing rights advocate, brought the deep pain of homelessness home point blank with one piercing observation you didn’t want to hear: being homeless, she said, means “struggling to find a place to defecate.”

Think about it.

And then multiply the thought by 6,000. Because there are about that many homeless people in downtown Los Angeles who, on a daily basis, have to figure out where to brush their teeth, wash their faces and bodies, and cadge a cup of coffee. Deny a human being territory, a space of her own, and you deny her agency. Deny her running water, and you take away her self-respect. Taking the floor out from under her and the faucet out of her life creates two of the most dehumanizing aspects of homelessness.

That’s even before you get to the social invisibility: people don’t look at you. You don’t exist. You no longer really have a name. Then factor race into the equation. A disproportionate 34 percent of the homeless in Los Angeles are homeless while being Black. Now multiply 6,000 by 10, since there are 60,000 homeless altogether in Los Angeles County, and then by about nine, since there are 560,000 nationwide. Meanwhile, an unknown number of “hidden homeless” are in the wings, just a friend and a couch away from a tent, including tens of thousands of students nationally.

You can, however, subtract an estimated 1,000 from the Los Angeles total, because that’s approximately the number who die on the streets here in a given year.

As in the United States in general, the homeless problem in Los Angeles has reached crisis levels not seen since the Depression, to the extent that homelessness is now systemic: it’s in the bloodstream of a city that not only hasn’t cured the condition despite years of city initiatives but actually manages to perpetuate it by mixing the country’s systemic racism with local indifference, inertia, NIMBYism, relentlessly rising real estate values — and, for nearly a year now, COVID-19.

The Harvard-sponsored Zoom conference, “Straight-Up Talk: Homelessness — Ethics/Policy/Action,” was designed to unpack the homeless problem in all its dimensions, to understand its complexities and scale, its logjams and hopes, and to suggest ways to relieve an intractable national trauma that is particularly intense in cities, especially Los Angeles. And, since this symposium was sponsored by alumni from a design school, what role might architecture play in a solution?

Surprisingly, the first architect to speak, Michael Lehrer — who presented a portfolio of thoughtful, successful, even beautiful low-income and homeless housing projects in Los Angeles — declared that architecture is not the solution: the scope of the issues is way larger than questions of design and construction.

A second speaker, Rosanne Haggerty, president of New York–based Community Solutions, said that housing itself was not a solution, since all the agencies vetting potential tenants are too balkanized to match the homeless with suitable shelter: build it and they can’t come. Service organizations have to pool data to track individuals and communities at risk. Housing is ineffectual without coordinated agencies coordinating data

Haggerty also pointed out that money alone won’t solve the problem since the long process of entitling and funding a project is mired in byzantine procedures that result in years of unspent money even when there is funding. The public money that is available comes burdened with regulations that both add to cost and stifle innovation.

The conference veered into doubt almost immediately as the participants declared that neither architecture nor housing nor money alone would solve the trauma. But they also offered lessons learned from their collective experience: they all believed there are paths forward.

First, Leilani Farha, director of The Shift, an international housing advocacy group, set the record straight by correcting the common misperception that the homeless are homeless because they have failed themselves.

When you walk by people living in homelessness on the street, instead of looking at that person and saying, oh, drug addict; oh, criminal; oh, lazy; oh, bad luck misfortune, what you should say and what you should understand is, No: that is the failure of governments to implement the right to housing.

Reframing the whole discussion, she invoked the human right to shelter, referring to the foundational 1948 speech delivered by Eleanor Roosevelt at a Paris meeting of the United Nations, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” which declared housing as a basic and universal human right along with food, health care, and education.

Since the 1930s, the homeless in Los Angeles’s Skid Row have been a constituency of the powerless, living in a condition of statelessness that has made it easy to sweep their plight under the rug. In L.A., that rug lay mostly downtown, where the inconvenient truth was easily kept out of sight in a city that, after the war, abandoned downtown for the suburbs. Nithya Raman, the newly elected City Council member from Los Angeles’s Fourth District who won her seat this fall in no small part on the issue, noted in the Zoom symposium that, six years ago, when she was writing a report in City Hall about homelessness in the city,

It was not as big of an issue in the public consciousness because homelessness was concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods, primarily in the Skid Row neighborhood in downtown. Since then, there has been a growth of encampments across Los Angeles. It has become the most important issue in Los Angeles for so many residents.

She pointed out that there are currently only a quarter the number of shelter beds available for the number of homeless who need them. The gap is, she said, “enormous.”

Recently elected City Council member Nithya Raman

Over the last several years, because of the growing numbers and Los Angeles’s very suburban nature, the city has effectively suburbanized Skid Row, turning a concentrated urban condition into sprawl by exporting the homeless even to posh ZIP codes normally immunized by distance. In 2017, the Skirball Fire, which started along the 405 Freeway at a homeless encampment in the Sepulveda Pass, approached the mansions of Bel Air and Brentwood, landing the issue at the threshold of gated estates. Property owners in other parts of the city have gated their driveways to keep homeless from using the seclusion of the shrubbery. In what would have been an unthinkable event just a few years ago, the homeless are pitching tents on patches of public green space in Hancock Park, opting for a landscaped suburban setting. And, at the heart of our city government in Civic Center, Kathryn Barger, the County’s sole Republican supervisor, who has championed help for the homeless, was simply walking down the street when she was chased by a mentally ill homeless person wielding a machete.

No longer somewhere else or only downtown, homelessness in Los Angeles touches everyone. Authorities use heat-seeking drones to find people who have even dug holes in the desert to find shelter.

But its new ubiquity is now getting increased official attention in what is, for Los Angeles, perhaps the most effective form of argument: real estate. Even as the city rolls out Downtown Los Angeles 2040, its plan to densify downtown residentially and alleviate its housing and traffic problems, the homeless are venturing out of Skid Row into high-rent South Park, the Arts District, and the loft district on Main and Spring, threatening downtown’s resurgence. The highly promising plan for developing downtown into an urban magnet and escape valve for coming growth is now in growing conflict with a social dynamic working relentlessly against its success. Besides spreading out from its edges, the homeless community occupies a no-go zone for many Angelenos in the core of downtown, a 50-block, 2.7-square-mile area between the towers of Bunker Hill to the west and the fashionable Arts District east of Alameda. This middle ground represents a poverty gap that shades the very idea of the good life in the city: it’s hard to focus on a black truffle risotto when someone shuffling past, pushing a shopping cart, asks you for the price of your lunch.

In Los Angeles, homelessness has joined freeway gridlock and a deepening housing shortage in a trifecta of urban crises. In the last municipal election, pressure from alerted citizens, many of them renters themselves facing and fearing housing insecurity in the pandemic, forced the issue to the top of the city’s agenda. Council members were elected on their position vis-à-vis the homeless, marking the first time that housing became so important in the vote.

Phase 1 of Skid Row Super Mural. Photo by Stephen Zeigler. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
An overview of a polarized downtown, from the sprawling, low-rise Skid Row, looking west at the mid-rise buildings of historic downtown with the towers of the financial district and Bunker Hill, right, and the towers of South Park, left. Photo by Iwan Baan.

Policy and the Welfare Queen

What makes homelessness systemic is not just the massive and sustained failure to correct it at multiple levels of government, but what might be understood as the perverse and intentional success governments have had in perpetuating it. The systems for housing in place through the 1970s, including Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and Roosevelt’s New Deal decades before, have been relentlessly weakened in subsequent administrations by laws and funding cutbacks. The devolution is not accidental. From Reagan on, the problem was politicized and then institutionalized into core policy that perpetuates its grip on the system, as if by design. Dog whistles then already signaled what they still signal now: an underlying political agenda, with racism high among the pitched notes. In Boston, 64 percent of the homeless population is African American, which is especially shocking given that the city’s Black population is 25 percent. Nationally, African Americans make up 40 percent of the total homeless population.

Trump’s own medley of dog whistles has joined the chorus that has long been ringing in housing law and finance, but perhaps his plan for a “beautiful border wall” is the shrillest and loudest. Its $21 billion estimated cost could pay the hard construction costs for some 200,000 housing units: the expense of building a racially motivated wall would house nearly half the estimated homeless in the United States, who are disproportionately people of color.

Speakers at the Harvard Zoom conference, which was curated by Los Angeles architects Alice Kimm and John Friedman (who themselves have extensive experience designing affordable housing), attributed the beginning of California’s long postwar slide in dealing with homelessness to Reagan’s two terms as California governor (1967–’75), especially the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act he signed in 1967. That legislative bill released a large population from mental institutions on their own recognizance into communities that, theoretically, would absorb them into a more supportive social fabric. Decentralizing the responsibility for care was an attempt to localize, individualize, and even humanize care.

Didn’t happen. Many landed on the streets, and those who did find SROs and boarding houses eventually ended up on the streets too, victims of escalating rents in cities undergoing gentrification. Some went to prison. The state government handed off the problem on the assumption that local communities would take up the slack, but local governments and institutions, underfunded and underequipped, failed to erect a social safety net.

Pershing Square in Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA). Photo by Levi Clancy. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Reagan had approved a plan that absolved the state government of responsibility. Like Pontius Pilate, but unlike the homeless, he could wash his hands of the problem.

Signing Lanterman-Petris-Short characterized what would become his policies as governor. As a candidate, Reagan had run and won his campaign on the theme “send the welfare bums back to work,” and early in his term as governor, he cut funding for the state university system, incensed at the demonstrators at Free-Speech Berkeley — “bums” with books. Why would he support anyone who was not going to vote for him anyway?  The policies would prove a warm-up for his presidency.

He imported that attitude to Washington, where he basically withdrew support from people who didn’t and wouldn’t vote for him. That included largely Democratic cities, where the homeless were concentrated. The strategy had the added electoral advantage of disenfranchising probable Democractic voters. Subtracting them from voting rolls for “address unknown” subtracted their vote.

Johnson’s War on Poverty effectively became Reagan’s war on the poor. Re-gendering his “bum,” he invented the “Welfare Queen” to demonize minorities as freeloaders living off the government. We’ll never know whether Reagan was aware of Eleanor Roosevelt’s UN speech about housing as a human right, but a year after his inauguration, appearing on ABC’s Good Morning America, he made his own declaration: “People who are sleeping on the grates […] the homeless […] are homeless, you might say, by choice.”

He soon proceeded to turn this opinion into policy, using the Welfare Queen as both the message and cornerstone of racially inflected programs that would eventually make homelessness systemic. He lavished money on defense but starved social programs that turned moms receiving social assistance, including housing, into queens. He sought to abandon government support for housing in favor of deregulated markets and, in his first year, dramatically cut housing subsidies: he halved the budget for public housing and HUD’s Section 8, to about $17.5 billion. In subsequent years, he worked to eliminate federal housing assistance to the poor altogether. Send the Welfare Queen back to work.

By the end of his second term, still beating up on the apocryphal “Welfare Queen,” he slashed federal assistance to local governments by 60 percent, eliminating general revenue sharing with cities and cutting public transit, legal services for the poor, and anti-poverty block grants while he was at it. Subsequent administrations — even Clinton’s, whose Welfare Reform Act of 1996 reduced the percentage of low-income families receiving cash assistance from 76 percent to 23 percent — never restored cutbacks for low-income housing and other benefits.

Federal disinvestment in housing was not total and immediate. Attention shifted primarily from funding for housing to the slippery slope of vouchers — basically food stamps awarded to qualified individuals to subsidize rents in market-rate housing. The transition harbored a political agenda. Vouchers privatized the government’s approach to shelter, taking the “socialism” out of direct government support by affirming the private sector’s housing production. Housing was no longer considered Eleanor Roosevelt’s human right but a market commodity. Voucher programs themselves were easy to cut, and they were. President George W. Bush, who often claimed Reagan’s mantle, proposed cutting one-third of the Section 8 housing vouchers — which two million poor families used to avoid homelessness. By 2003, 34,000 vouchers were provided to families, as opposed to the 400,000 given in 1976 at the end of Gerald Ford’s presidency. Cuts in Section 8 housing programs were aggravated by a decline in federal grants to local communities to develop housing. Local communities were left to put Humpty Dumpty back together with increasingly diminished resources.

Of course, other forces beyond government disengagement exacerbated the crisis. Since the 1990s, mass incarceration has been a major driver of homelessness. Trivial by comparison, Airbnb also contributed later, turning existing housing stock into short-term rentals. Through the decades, the dramatic decrease in affordable housing caused an increase in homelessness in cities, as rising property values and rents displaced people whose incomes had become stagnant. Starting with Reagan and continuing afterward, the gulf between the haves and have-nots widened. The dramatic rise in homelessness in Los Angeles (and New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, and elsewhere) is directly related to a decreasing pool of affordable units driven by the financialization of housing. Even SROs and rooming houses, a last refuge, disappeared from housing stock. The marketplace on which national housing policy is based was not kind to the poor in rich cities.

Ironically, some of those people with nowhere to go wound up camping out in the Bel Air hills, near Reagan’s last home. They had come back to haunt him, knocking at his door with fire.

Ethics

Enter Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, perhaps the most controversial figure in the city’s contentious homelessness quagmire. In what is basically a libertarian interpretation of the Lanterman-Petris-Short bill, Feuer — Reagan reincarnated as a Democrat — maintains that it is a person’s right to choose to live on the street, and that no authority can legally round her up to impose shelter against her will. Feuer’s argument seems specious given that, according to the Harvard Zoom speakers, an overwhelming percentage of the homeless, when actually asked, say they would like to be able to take a shower in the morning, and make a cup of coffee, in their own home. It’s doubtful that Feuer ever visited a tent pitched outside City Hall to ask residents himself, but whatever the philosophical basis of his position, it has given legal if not moral license to the city to ignore the urgency of the question.

Last year, US District Judge David O. Carter joined the issue with his decision to compel Orange County to find housing for homeless persons sleeping along the Santa Ana River. The county found accommodations in motels, where the homeless lodged for several months. This year, Carter presided over a suit brought against the city and county by an alliance of downtown business owners furious at the unsafe, inhumane, and unhealthy living conditions of the homeless in their community.

Feuer’s hands-off argument is a narrow interpretation of the fact that no existing law allows the government to remove citizens from the street. Carter contradicted that argument by ordering the city to find housing, making it law: per his order, the city had the right and responsibility to remove homeless people from the street and put them in housing. Feuer may still righteously use his position to argue his views, but the tents pitched around City Hall stand as indictments of the government and its leaders for failing its citizens.

Homeless tents in Los Angeles Skid Row. By Russ Allison Loar. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The impasse downtown seems intractable, and increasingly out of control, but a Zoom conference participant, Shaun Donovan — Obama’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development — recalled succeeding with Michelle Obama in their targeted effort at cutting the homeless rate among veterans by 50 percent, from 75,000 to 35,000 (a population only slightly larger than Los Angeles’s homeless). “All we need is the money and the will,” he said. They had the will and found the money, but he also had the organizational skill: with his formation as an architect, Donovan knew how to restructure and redesign the housing system to address the problem. Inventive and adaptable problem solvers, architects are trained to deal with the many levels of building, from zoning to construction to cost, and are accustomed to handling complexities and negotiating among numerous stakeholders. “Architects have the power to reimagine and see what no one has seen,” he said, concluding: “If there’s one thing I want you to remember from this discussion today it’s that homelessness is a solvable problem.”

Donovan is now running for mayor of New York City, with a stated aim to help solve the homeless problems there, which are not dissimilar to Los Angeles’s. 

Action

Reagan’s marginalization of the housing issue by trickle-down economic starvation was so successful that, barring the unlikely return of a Roosevelt or a Johnson, cities like Los Angeles have been left to solve the homeless problem locally.

The Garcetti administration has tried. In 2016, the city passed Proposition HHH, a $1.2 billion bond to help subsidize up to 10,000 supportive housing units. “The voters of Los Angeles have radically reshaped our future — giving us a mandate to end street homelessness over the next decade,” Garcetti announced proudly, and, it would turn out, prematurely. Theoretically, $1.2 billion and 10,000 units would put a dent in the problem. But, to date, even a year after all the funds have been allocated and nearly five years after the bill’s approval, only several hundred units have been built. A mea culpa note that Garcetti signed at the end of an official announcement basically explained that the dog ate his homework, that it was all very complicated. It turns out that the city had needed to restructure the way housing production was administered rather than work within a broken system. As it stands, only 7,500 of the anticipated 10,000 units will ever be built, if that, and even then, only by about 2028, 12 years after funding, according to an expert who asked not to be named.

HHH failed for two reasons. Overbearing regulations and time-consuming funding procedures made what should have been a well-funded sprint to the finish line a slog through bureaucratic quicksand. The list of obstacles slowing the process is long and cumulative, no one hurdle or setback causing the defeat in itself, but all contributing to a well-funded failure.

To cite a few: Rules established by the Americans with Disabilities Act require that each unit, not just a percentage of units, comply with handicapped rules, including wheelchair access, turning radii, bespoke cabinetry, even the amount of space on either side of a bed. Factor into that minimal size requirements (no micro-apartments allowed), mandatory closet space minima, a set ratio of parking spaces per unit (for people mostly without cars), density limits on a parcel, exigent fire exiting rules, and HUD’s own rules for any developer who needs renters’ vouchers to secure loans. By the time you’ve satisfied all the requirements, a one-bedroom unit costs around $600,000 to build, according to Roger Sherman, an architect in the Los Angeles office of Gensler who specializes in the homeless issue. That’s well over the construction costs for market-rate housing of the same type: “The perfect has been made the enemy of the good,” Sherman said.

Then add time to cost. Even with HHH bonds, the development timeline ranges from three to six years, a calendar that fails anyone now on the street. The composite of funding sources necessary for any one project, known as “stack,” requires that funding applications and approvals be obtained in an exasperatingly slow sequence, one agency at a time: each agency has to stamp its approval before the project moves “up the stack” to the next. But that’s the good news. Success on the stack only works if and when federal vouchers — the holy grail of the stack and a precondition to obtaining everything that follows — are available. Since Trump’s presidency and the increase in applicants due to the homelessness crisis, supply has fallen far short of demand.

Often the notion of a housing czar comes up: the need for someone who can cut through the Gordian knot of red tape. Sherman, however, suggests that a czar might not be necessary, just a mayor leveraging a disaster: the level of the homeless crisis in Los Angeles could easily be construed as a slow-motion earthquake or slow-moving fire, a condition that would put the issue on an emergency basis that would lift overbearing restrictions and liberate subsidies from the attached strings.

“The systems [in place] have already been designed to perpetuate homelessness,” said Haggerty, president of New York–based Community Solutions. “What if the way we’ve understood homelessness reflects not individual misfortune but a massive system design failure?” Her epiphany about system failure occurred when her team built thousands of affordable and permanent supportive housing units in and around New York City, and everyone expected the homeless to disappear from the street into housing. “Well, that’s not what happened,” she said.

It seems that all the organizations, including her own, independently had their own requirements and eligibility criteria, which turned the tenant vetting process into an impassable uphill slalom that made it impossible for applicants to escape the street. Each housing assistance group was funded to provide a service that had to be checked off in sequence, and collectively they added up to another “stack,” this time not for funding but for vetting residents. The perfect now had become the enemy of the urgent: the well-intended regulations attached so adhesively to each source were never considered relative to the equally adhesive requirements of other sources, or considered relative to the pace and success of the project. Streamlined coordination was in order.

The new system that Haggerty’s group (and others) have devised to replace the failed one is a data-driven approach, adapted from public health procedures, that collects information in a shared homeless and at-risk registry based in on-the-ground research. Organizations have climbed out of their silos to work in information collectives, with the key players getting together to look at the same data to calculate their next moves. The granular data necessary to build usable information are not coming from an algorithm but from interviewers in the field making eye contact and taking notes: “It’s built from the ground up by people doing the work” she said.

Getting Down to Cases

Even without a czar or an empowered mayor, some L.A. architects have succeeded building housing with the resources at hand. Though Michael Lehrer said early in the conference that he knew homelessness is a problem too large for architecture alone to solve, he has worked in the trenches for decades fighting the good fight from his office in Silver Lake. Twenty years ago, he started designing drop-in centers on Skid Row that provided showers, laundries, temporary beds, meals, TV, and even classes. The James M. Wood Community Center has received three million visits in its two decades of operation. The clean modernist lines of the building (along with patios landscaped by Mia Lehrer with palms and bougainvillea) reveal his Harvard Design School background, and they echo the midcentury modernism of the famous Case Study Houses built in the decades after the war.

The James M. Wood Community Center by Michael Lehrer, fronted by a white colonnade that defines an interior courtyard.

But more fundamental than style and minimalist elegance is the humanism that underlies what Lehrer intended as a “sanctum,” a complex built with a quality of design and construction that honors its users. (When I first saw the complex and how it was enthusiastically embraced and used not long after it opened, I was moved nearly to tears.) His two drop-in “sanctuaries” teach lessons of architectural empathy: that beauty is, he says, “a rudiment of human dignity.” Lehrer also showed more recent projects in his Zoom presentation, including one for at-risk youths in East Los Angeles, most designed with micro-units along single-loaded exterior corridors that allow cross-ventilation. The shed roofs of Willowbrook, a single-story garden complex of seven 300-square-foot micro-units, built on an infill lot in East Los Angeles, blends right into its residential neighborhood, with no hint of its institutional origins in a nonprofit organization. His latest project, a village of about 40 prefabricated, eight-by-eight-foot, one-story modular rooms, each with a house-like gable, arrived on palettes for erection on an irregular lot in the San Fernando Valley. Sponsored by a nonprofit developer, the project will have taken 13 weeks from design to end of construction next month (no thanks to the city’s Bureau of Engineering, however, whose regulations greatly increased its costs).

Addressing the chronic issue of NIMBYism, Lehrer said, “It is absolutely critical that these projects honor and enhance the neighborhoods and become projects of desire in every neighborhood to form complete communities.” In none of his projects did Lehrer design down to his clients. He created spirited complexes, designs into which he factored what he called “joy.” Design matters.

Attitude matters, too. The architectural empathy Lehrer showed the homeless — now magically transformed into residents simply because of a roof — stems from his direct contact with homeless people themselves, from talking with his ultimate clients, “with the sisters and brothers who have lived experiences that only they can know and understand.” Lehrer emphasized the human need for what he calls the “primal hut.” Building the rudiments is, for Lehrer, as fundamental as a doctor’s Hippocratic Oath — “to do no harm or injustice.”

Leilani Farha found that, when she shot “little videos” during her interviews with the homeless, “Each and every one of them articulated almost the exact same thing. They all want and expect to be treated as human beings, and to be able to live as human beings.”

Other than his palette project in the Valley, most of Lehrer’s projects used conventional construction. His younger Harvard colleague, Kevin Hirai, chose an industrialized approach to permanent housing in order to achieve, through modular construction, the savings in time and cost that replicability and scale make possible. Co-founder and COO of FlyawayHomes, Hirai built a three-story, multi-family shipping container structure in South Los Angeles; he anticipates that the current half-million-dollar cost per unit will — if built in quantity with modular components — eventually drop by a third, while taking one-third less time. A second project will be finished in February.

Instead of funding mechanisms tied to traditional tax-credit grants for low-income housing, his outfit put together a privately financed package, hoping to prove that what he calls “social impact funding” is profitable and attractive to investors. The private-equity solution bypassed HUD and all its impediments. With modular, systematized construction creating high-quality, low-cost housing, Hirai hopes “to jump off from the first two developments to create an alternate development ecosystem where we could build 50 developments.”

Thinking beyond his own project, Hirai, with degrees in finance and real estate development, suggested alternative paths to affordability. Lowering interest rates from around six percent to three percent would alone greatly reduce product cost, he suggested, especially if paired with land that could be up-zoned for density. Leilani Farha agreed: “Governments haven’t given capital a chance to respond,” she said, meaning that the financialization occurring at so many levels in American society hasn’t occurred in housing. If one wants to harness the market forces driving capitalism, she asked, “What are the levers?”

One entrepreneur, Los Angeles–based Martin Muoto, is doing just that, using market levers to finance a large-scale project in South Los Angeles. Muoto, with a strong background in the financial industry, has designed a sophisticated social impact funding tool to finance a mixed-use neighborhood, with the goal of establishing a socially and economically dynamic community that would stimulate growth in the larger community. On land he acquired on Central Avenue around 70th Street, he intends to build The Beehive, a mixed-used complex designed to fit into the area organically, with housing itself just one part of a sustainable social and economic ecosystem that includes job creation and workplaces.

Unlike Kevin Hirai, however, Muoto has started by raising the social impact capital first. The Beehive is not a building in search of funding. So far, FlyawayHomes is operating at a cottage-industry scale focused on housing as a single issue. The Beehive represents a different, more expansive and diverse paradigm with greater profit opportunities that make it more attractive to private equity. The larger scale and wider scope leverage more investment opportunities. Muoto’s operation represents a sophisticated, privately financed operation rather than a sophisticated architectural project: that comes later. The private equity funding of both projects, however, avoids the regulatory bureaucratic glue that has slowed others.

In the Zoom conference, Claire Elizabeth Williams, co-founder and CEO of Foundations for Social Change in Vancouver, suggested another approach that dissolves the glue. In a process whose great advantage is its streamlined simplicity, her organization has given $7,500 cash grants to individuals and families who are homeless. These stipends have succeeded in stabilizing lives that had been spent on the street. Recipients have used them for security deposits for housing and other hard costs, including food.

The Star Apartments, a housing complex in Skid Row for the long-term homeless, opened in 2014. Los Angeles architect Michael Maltzan elevated the 102 units apartments above an existing one-story commercial building. Photo by Iwan Baan.

COVID-19 and BLM

“Never waste a good crisis,” said Shaun Donovan, quoting his Obama colleague Rahm Emanuel (who was channeling Churchill, who was channeling Machiavelli). For Los Angeles, the advantage of the homeless crisis is that the public has finally recognized the crisis as a crisis. The encampments and even villages on freeway cloverleafs, in parks, around City Hall, and along thoroughfares are facts on the ground that both cause concern and shame the public.

But it took two other crises to bring the housing crisis to a head. Heidi Marston, executive director of the LA Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), credits the pandemic — with its devastating threat to the health of homeless communities — for bringing resources together quickly, generating momentum. FEMA funded “Project Room Key,” established in March 2020 as a state response to COVID-19, which placed nearly 6,000 people experiencing homelessness in hotel and motel rooms in Los Angeles within a two-month period. The disaster that Garcetti could have used to lift regulations found the crisis without the mayor. Marston qualified her enthusiasm, however: “It would really be a shame to go back to the status quo after COVID just because we don’t see it as a crisis anymore.”

The second crisis compounding the base crisis was the systemic racism highlighted by Black Lives Matter. “The largest civil rights movement in American history,” according to Raman, BLM gives homelessness a context, linking the country’s race-related systemic homelessness to systemic racism. BLM points out that the disproportionate percentage of minorities now on the streets traces back to the Welfare Queen, when racism was baked into the country’s housing policy.  BLM has compounded the moral incentive of curing homelessness, at least in Los Angeles. “We’ve seen a real investment in closing that gap here in Los Angeles over these past few months,” she said.

Hovering over it all, and further accelerating the pace, is the public health issue that Farha had raised early in the conference. Defecation in the streets has spawned a number of hepatitis outbreaks in Los Angeles.

The current mobilization has united a small army of individuals, nonprofits, institutions, and politicians, who have joined forces to confront what is now a clearly identified and intractable problem. Increasingly linked and less balkanized, the effort is more collective and better informed than it was even five years ago. There is already a considerable well of experience, some of it painful, about strategies that do and do not succeed; the working list is long:

Responsive capitalism. Streamlined regulations. Funding alignment. Modular construction. Government land. Vertical bureaucratic integration. Cash allocations. Collective will. Wraparound social services. Transitional housing. Permanent housing. Data. Staged re-entry. Security deposits. Job training. NIMBYism. State legislation against NIMBYism. And, of course, compassion, ingenuity, leadership, architecture.

With HUD’s Section 8 vouchers in decreasing supply, the current, most effective solution to the housing crisis seems to be a grassroots reaction to Washington’s systemic disengagement and recalcitrance. Advocates are coming together in a para-governmental and extra-governmental network that is establishing an alternate system to the system already failing in place. Their solution is pragmatic and agnostic — and opportunistic in the best sense of the word — in its methods to forge a combination of paths aimed at maximizing door count.

It’s a sad irony that solving the problem means making good on the local initiatives necessitated by the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act and its national consequences. Waiting for the compassionate conservatism of Washington, waiting for Mitch McConnell, is like waiting for Godot.

We are at an inflection point in the crisis. COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, the failure of Proposition HHH, the recent City Council race, growing homelessness, and the DTLA 2040 initiative all are repositioning homelessness in public awareness and on the city’s agenda. We don’t yet know if the recent momentum is sustainable. We do know that there are still more people entering the ranks of the homeless than are escaping, due in no small part to the decline in federal grants given to local communities. The gap between the number of housing units and the number of homeless is huge and growing, certain to be gravely aggravated if impending evictions due to the COVID crisis occur.

Washington is conspicuous by its absence: the HUD system is a shell of the robust agency it once was. The Biden administration might step into the hollowed shell and revitalize the agency, perhaps even playing Reagan’s original movie in reverse, spooling back the incremental changes that have diminished its viability and purpose. In his campaign, candidate Biden acknowledged the problem and promised housing vouchers to every American who needs government assistance. Currently vouchers are available to only a quarter of the people eligible. The example set by Obama’s former HUD secretary, Shaun Donovan, in helping homeless veterans proves that solutions are achievable and sustainable. The problem is political will, not money: helping every homeless person in America for a year costs the price of a single aircraft carrier.

As Heidi Marston, LAHSA’s director, said: “I completely agree that homelessness is an issue that can be solved, mostly because we caused it.”

A formerly homeless resident of the Star Apartments in the kitchen of his studio apartment. Photo by Iwan Baan.

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Joseph Giovannini is a critic, architect, and teacher based in New York. Trained at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles TimesNew York MagazineArchitect Magazine, and Architectural Record, and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, USC, and SCI-Arc. His book Architecture Unbound: A Century of the Architectural Avant-Garde will be out in 2021. 

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Featured image: “Skid Row Campers in downtown Los Angeles” by Russ Allison Loar is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

 

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